[FBI interview]

The inevitable Biden impeachment push nears the starting line

The venue wasn’t surprising; it is very much to be expected that such a declaration should arrive while sandwiched by exaggerations from Fox News host Sean Hannity. Nor was the announcement itself, given that McCarthy has faced pressure since taking the gavel — or before — to start moving on impeachment from his caucus’s fringe-right flank.

Nor is it surprising that this escalation from McCarthy came despite what an objective observer might notice is a remarkable dearth of causation.

There is certainly reason to think that this is not much of a deterrent for the speaker. Politico reported last week that McCarthy had reached a private agreement with former president Donald Trump to support an expungement of Trump’s own impeachments, a means for McCarthy to deflect pressure from Trump to endorse his bid for the 2024 nomination. McCarthy denied that report, but conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the third-most powerful Republican in the House, has actively backed the idea.

That his leadership team appears to view Trump’s impeachments as partisan scarlet letters might understandably suggest that McCarthy wouldn’t have qualms about leveraging the lingering power of impeachment for his own purposes. You might recall his accidentally admitting to applying similar leverage in the past.

So what’s the case? Hannity began his explanation by pointing to Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s (R-Iowa) release of a 2020 interview with an FBI informant who described speaking to the founder of a Ukrainian energy company about payments made to Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The informant, Hannity said, was “directly reporting what the head of Burisma is saying about how he’s paying Joe and Hunter Biden all of this money, all these millions to protect them from the investigations that were ongoing. And in fact, we have Joe Biden on tape admitting and bragging about it.”

This has been debunked repeatedly, if not endlessly. The “tape” mentioned above is of Biden giving a public speech in which he boasted about putting pressure on Ukraine to fire a prosecutor that the U.S. government and its allies viewed as corrupt. That prosecutor then claimed that he was fired because he was actively investigating Burisma, whose board included Hunter Biden. The prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was not investigating Burisma, but the appeal of Shokin’s claim for Biden’s opponents is obvious.

Replying to Hannity’s setup, McCarthy explained what he saw as questionable actions.

“Not only do they claim that they were bribed, we now find information that 16 out of 17 payments from Romania were provided to the Biden shell companies while he was vice president,” he said. “ … You’re sitting here today where now you have found millions of foreign money — just what the [FBI interview] alleges they did to Biden’s family — now we found that it has funneled through shell companies.”

It is very, very important to note that McCarthy, like so many of his allies, is conflating money paid to members of Biden’s family with culpability by Joe Biden himself. House Republicans in particular have taken to referring to their probes into payments made to Hunter Biden and his uncle Jim as payments to the “Biden family,” which is like referring to Jared Kushner’s securing $2 billion from Saudi interests as a payment to the “Trump family.”

Despite energetic efforts to link payments back to Joe Biden, House Republicans keep coming up short. So McCarthy et al just conflate them. That Hunter Biden received payments from Romanian businesses while Joe Biden was vice president is used to disparage Joe Biden, despite the lack of a demonstrated connection between the payments and the now-president. It’s all just implied. Or stretched to the point of transparency: Hunter Biden was paid millions of dollars in a few deals with foreign business interests; therefore the allegation from one person — reported secondhand and contradicted by other comments from that same person — is somehow more credible.

McCarthy also pointed to Biden having “used something we have not seen since Richard Nixon, used the weaponization of government to benefit his family.” This is a reference to claims that the investigation that resulted in Hunter Biden agreeing to various criminal violations was hampered by favoritism. This remains to be adjudicated fully, though the Justice Department denies claims made by whistleblowers. But, again, there is no demonstrated link back to Joe Biden.

This is obviously important, though Hannity, McCarthy and their allies are unlikely to dwell on it. Easier to wave the “Biden family” wand and press on.

Consider what was known when Trump’s two impeachment investigations were initiated. The second followed the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which itself followed months of Trump’s false assertions about the 2020 presidential election. There was and is no question that Trump was centrally culpable for what occurred that day.

Then there was the impeachment inquiry that began in late September 2019. It centered — probably not coincidentally — on Trump’s efforts to coerce the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into the firing of Shokin. Over the course of the investigation itself, this was demonstrated amply, with testimony from Trump staffers and those involved in the wide-ranging effort.

But at the time the inquiry was announced, there was already credible evidence at hand. On Aug. 28, 2019, Politico reported that aid was being withheld from Ukraine. On Sept. 5, The Washington Post’s editorial board revealed that it had learned that this was part of an effort to force an announced probe into Joe Biden, considered to be the most likely Democratic presidential nominee the following year. On Sept. 9, the House and Senate intelligence committees were informed that a whistleblower had filed a complaint centered on Trump — a complaint that was later shown to document Trump’s efforts with his team to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. By the morning of Sept. 24, Trump was admitting to reporters that he was withholding aid over putative concerns about “corruption.”

That afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her support for an impeachment inquiry. Then the snowball grew bigger.

There’s no question that Hunter Biden was engaged in dubious business deals, apparently trading on his last name to do so. He’s going to plead guilty to violating federal law in failing to report income to the IRS.

But there’s no evidence that Joe Biden was receiving money through his son’s efforts. Joe Biden’s ambition has always been not wealth but the presidency — and taking a few million in cash in 2015 to help Burisma would have been an enormous threat to that obvious ambition. By the time of the 2019 impeachment, though, Trump had already demonstrated repeatedly that he saw the presidency as a tool for effecting his personal agenda. That he might withhold aid to boost his candidacy comported entirely with what was understood about him.

McCarthy’s announcement that an impeachment inquiry might soon begin — “Hannity, this is rising to the level of impeachment inquiry, which provides Congress the strongest power to get the rest of the knowledge and information needed” — is driven in part by the pressure he feels from his right flank to do so. There are the members of his caucus pushing him to move forward on impeachment, certainly, but also the right-wing media swarm that has already escalated well past the available evidence. People like Sean Hannity.

“In the words of John Dean,” Hannity said as he wrapped up his interview with McCarthy, “a malignant cancer now is surrounding the Biden presidency.”

Dean, once the White House counsel to Nixon, said that not about Biden but about Trump, during the time of the first impeachment inquiry. Dean also said something else revelatory in that same time period, about his former boss.

“Nixon might have survived” calls to resign his presidency, Dean told Rolling Stone in 2018, “if he had Fox News and the conservative media that exists today.”

As it turns out, that partisan influence works the other way, too.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post